12 Years a Slave – unflinching cinema

12-years-a-slaveEngland was the dominant slave trading nation in the latter part of the seventeenth century writes Liam Mac Uaid. Africans were transported to the Caribbean and North America to work on British plantations and cities like Bristol grew rich on the trade. It’s a nice historical irony that a black British director has created the most powerful film ever made on the subject and a black British actor is being talked of as an Oscar winner for his performance as a slave.

Director Steve McQueen seems to be making a speciality of taking difficult and unconventional historical subjects and making art from them. His film Hunger, inspired by Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, obliged actor Michael Fassbender to starve himself under medical supervision so that audiences were confronted with the horror of that form of protest. It’s a superb piece of work but at times very difficult to watch.

The same is true of 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga who is kidnapped and sold. This seems to have been a relatively common practice, for without papers it was almost impossible for a black person to prove they were not a runaway slave, even in the states where what was sometimes called the “peculiar institution” wasn’t legal. Like Fassbender Ejiofor must have been forced to push his body to its limits to add realism to McQueen’s vision. In one scene he is saved from lynching but that’s only because he’s considered to be a very valuable piece of livestock. However, he has struck back at a white man and deserves to be punished, so he’s left semi strangled by a rope for almost a day. A Hollywood film may have allowed this scene to go on for thirty seconds. McQueen drags it out for several minutes. He wants no one to doubt that slavery was brutal, sadistic institution which could only be maintained by extremes of violence.

Burn it down
Burn it down

It’ll be interesting to see how this film is received in the former slave states. McQueen has no truck with those myths of Southern graciousness and gentility. Slave owners, their wives, overseers and everyone who made a profit from selling people like cattle are shown as variously corrupted, psychopathic and amoral. Their relationships with slaves never go beyond the patronising affection they might give to a pet. More usually they refer to them as niggers and beasts and never doubt their right to treat them as cruelly as they feel they want to.

The concept of possession is pushed well beyond the boundaries of slaves as “talking tools”, which is how they were referred to in ancient Greece. The women were property of whom sex could be demanded. Rape and sexual violence were an intrinsic part of the institution and , who plays Patsey, is repeatedly the victim of the most awful abuse which mirrors Ejifor’s long strangulation she is whipped for visiting a friend. Again it’s extended well beyond what normal cinema would show. The deep bloody wounds on her back and the voyeuristic pleasure of the slave owners are a judgement on their society and those who would speak up for them.

This is a masterful, unflinching piece of film making which seems certain to become a classic. It aims to show you how infinitely brutal slavery was and it will make it impossible to watch pro slavery apologias like Gone With The Wind in the same way again. When you leave the cinema you’ll be tempted to raise a glass to the Union armies who burned the slaveowners’ plantations to the ground.


1 Comment

  1. Brilliant movie, in the same league as McQueen’s movie Hunger about the Irish hunger strikers. Quite long but you never missed a beat. It is not just the script, plot or content but the way the whole movie looks, the special artistic eye that McQueen and his team has. The slow shots of the colourful mornings in the south which pace the scenes , the way that in the terrible beating given to the young woman you only see the terrible wounds slightly afterwards when other slaves try to care for here. Then throughout the movie the close ups of the main character expressing his utter surprise, pain, fear and determination to survive. Watching the degree of violence and the entrenched privileges of the plantation system you understand why more Americans were killed in the Civil war than in all subsequent wars. I also liked the way the bogus religious justification for slavery was shown on screen.
    At the Hackney Picture house people clapped at the end which is very rare in my experience. Let’t hope it wins the oscar although the risk is that an easier ‘entertaining’ film like the American Hustle might pip it.

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